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Stories of the Phuket tourism workers hit hard by plunge in travel to Thailand amid the Covid-19



  • A boat operator shut his business but can at least fish. Thousands of tourism workers in Phuket left for their home provinces with nothing, and no jobs to go to

  • The pandemic has cost Thailand’s most popular holiday island US$12.8 billion, and with plans to let tourists return put on hold, 50,000 hotel jobs are on the line


Prasong Suanchai would usually be gearing up for the high season, waiting for tourists from across the globe to flock to Thailand’s most popular holiday island. This year, the Phuket boat operator has had to resort to old ways.


“For generations, the men in my family have been fishermen,” says the 34-year-old. “I was fishing since a young boy, but it was getting hard. There were less fish and less money for what we caught. It was difficult to provide for my family.” Nevertheless, he is again fishing for a living.


In 2008, Suanchai started to operate snorkelling and island- and beach-hopping cruises. His charisma and self-taught language skills earned him a good reputation and his business expanded from one boat to six, employing 24 crew.


However, as the coronavirus closed down the world and its economies, Phuket found itself in peril. Suanchai suspended operations in April. “Even when the island came out of lockdown and locals started visiting, it was not worth me starting again,” he says. “I knew I could not make enough money.”


Nevertheless, Suanchai counts himself as being among the lucky ones. He talks of many friends – cleaners, cooks, drivers, service staff, hustlers, owners of small restaurants, and other boat operators – who returned to their home provinces ahead of the island being cut off during Thailand’s strict lockdown, which ran from April 1 to July 1.


“They have no job to go home to,” says Suanchai. “They were here to make money to support the grandparents, parents and siblings [and] they went back to with nothing. It is very sad. For me, it’s hard, but I’m still here with my family, on my home island, and I can fish.”


About 40 per cent of the usual tourism workforce on Phuket comes from elsewhere in Thailand. “The young support their families,” explains Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotel Association. “When these young people lose their jobs, they go back home and have no money. The mum and dad and family suffer because in Thailand, there is no pension fund. They rely on their children.”


Phuket had entered 2020 on a high. It welcomed 9.89 million visitors in 2019 – an average of 27,095 people a day – international investors were clamouring for a slice of the development pie, and business was booming.


Karon beach in Phuket. With tourism almost at a standstill in Phuket, and plans to reopen the island to foreign holidaymakers put on hold, thousands of tourism workers have left for their home provinces, businesses have shut, and 50,000 hotel jobs are at risk. Photo: AFP Prasong Suanchai would usually be gearing up for the high season, waiting for tourists from across the globe to flock to Thailand’s most popular holiday island. This year, the Phuket boat operator has had to resort to old ways. “For generations, the men in my family have been fishermen,” says the 34-year-old. “I was fishing since a young boy, but it was getting hard. There were less fish and less money for what we caught. It was difficult to provide for my family.” Nevertheless, he is again fishing for a living. In 2008, Suanchai started to operate snorkelling and island- and beach-hopping cruises. His charisma and self-taught language skills earned him a good reputation and his business expanded from one boat to six, employing 24 crew.

However, as the coronavirus closed down the world and its economies, Phuket found itself in peril. Suanchai suspended operations in April. “Even when the island came out of lockdown and locals started visiting, it was not worth me starting again,” he says. “I knew I could not make enough money.”

Nevertheless, Suanchai counts himself as being among the lucky ones. He talks of many friends – cleaners, cooks, drivers, service staff, hustlers, owners of small restaurants, and other boat operators – who returned to their home provinces ahead of the island being cut off during Thailand’s strict lockdown, which ran from April 1 to July 1. “They have no job to go home to,” says Suanchai. “They were here to make money to support the grandparents, parents and siblings [and] they went back to with nothing. It is very sad. For me, it’s hard, but I’m still here with my family, on my home island, and I can fish.” About 40 per cent of the usual tourism workforce on Phuket comes from elsewhere in Thailand. “The young support their families,” explains Anthony Lark, president of the Phuket Hotel Association. “When these young people lose their jobs, they go back home and have no money. The mum and dad and family suffer because in Thailand, there is no pension fund. They rely on their children.” Phuket had entered 2020 on a high. It welcomed 9.89 million visitors in 2019 – an average of 27,095 people a day – international investors were clamouring for a slice of the development pie, and business was booming.

According to Phuket governor Narong Woonciew, the pandemic has to date cost the island 400 billion baht (US$12.82 billion) in losses. The 300 daily flights seen last year have slumped to just 81 domestic landings, with passenger arrivals tumbling by 65 per cent year on year for the January to July period.


Despite Thailand’s borders remaining tightly closed to foreign tourists, the country slowly started to reopen domestically in July. Tourism Authority Thailand launched the Rao Tiew Duay Kan, or We Travel Together, programme to push holidays through subsidised schemes.


As a result, many Phuket businesses had to quickly reassess their beach-to-bar business models, says Brad Edman, general manager of Renaissance Phuket Resort and Spa and multi-property vice-president, Phuket. “We have to make sure we’re seen to be the right fit for Thai travellers and expats,” says Edman. “Make sure we’ve got the best local food, for example. It’s very different when you’re catering to European or Australian tastes than to the experts, the Thais. This has been a time for regrouping and understanding that genuine authentic experience.”


Despite the domestic drive, though, hotel occupancy rates have averaged 7 or 8 per cent. According to research from consulting group C9 Hotelworks, within the hotel industry alone, 50,000 jobs are on the line as most of the island’s 86,000 rooms remain empty.

“Realistically, it will remain a challenge to achieve half the occupancy experienced in 2019 without international borders reopening fully,” says Brett Wilson, general manager of Pullman Phuket Arcadia.


Last month, however, it seemed as though Phuket was being thrown a lifeline. Under cautious measures to open up the country, the government announced the island would soon start welcoming visitors taking advantage of the special tourist visa (STV) scheme.



Source : SCMP Travel

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